I tend to regard survivalist books with a somewhat careful eye these days. The reason for that, I confess, is that I bought a copy of Patriots (James Wesley Rawles) at full price after reading the many favourable reviews on Amazon. In hindsight, I should have paid a lot more attention to the negative reviews. That said, people whose opinion I trusted were saying good things about Lights Out and I decided to take a chance and purchase a copy.
I shall be bluntly honest, right now, and say that Lights Out is quite a good book.
Lights Out is, rather like the later One Second After, set in America immediately following an EMP attack that causes havoc all across the country. (The source of the EMP is never identified.) The main characters, who live near a medium-sized town in Texas, are caught completely by surprise. Some of them have more supplies than others, but they’re not perfectly equipped for the disaster. (Another flaw with Patriots.) They are, by and large, intelligent and self-sufficient folks, at least as much as one can be in this day and age. The story follows the adventures of Mark ‘Karate Man’ Turner as he struggles to keep his family and neighbours alive in the wake of the disaster.
The most important point in this book, IHMO, is that the wise man doesn’t count on the government to do anything for him. That is a fairly realistic point. The people in the novel who believe the government’s unrealistic promises that they will get the lights back on sooner or later tend to come to bad ends. The sheer scale of the disaster – as in Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the heavy snowfall in Britain last year – makes it hard for the government, with the best will in the world, to come to grips with the problem. Mark Turner and his friends have to struggle to survive on their own.
Lights Out does not, unlike Dies the Fire or, to a lesser extent, One Second After, feature an immediate collapse of everything. Instead, there is a slow decline of national and even state governments, to the point where everything just starts fading away. That is, I suspect, considerably more realistic than earlier books, although purists may argue that the effects of the EMP are exaggerated. Truthfully, I don’t think that that matters. As I said in one of my own works, the more you expect the government to do for you, the less it will be able to do for you. Even so, I suspect that there would be much more of a die-off fairly quickly – and not just from people losing their pacemakers. The modern cities require vast amounts of food to be transhipped in each day. They will be swiftly down to eating dog food and then starving.
Mark Turner himself comes across as a fairly decent guy, although he does tend to slip towards Marty Sue levels from time to time. He makes realistic mistakes, both tactically and when it comes to dealing with people; in some ways, the chaos at the end of the book results from one of his failures. Honesty compels me to admit that I would probably have handled matters a great deal worse. The overall point, I think, of the story is that people who try to handle things alone tend to come off almost as bad as those who trust in the government. The key to survival is working in groups with people who might disagree with you on one or two points, but generally follow the same logic as you.
The book touches on many basic points, although – thankfully – the author avoids the massive information-dumping of Patriots. The characters have to work to repair older cars for use after the pulse – the newer cars are just wasted space without their computer chips – and rig up new solutions to old problems. They also touch on farming after the pulse, security issues, guard training, travel in what is effectively Bandit Country and many other issues.
Unlike the author of Patriots, the author of Lights Out has a genuine understanding of personality conflicts. Mark must deal with a dozen different conflicts that appear within their safe area, from a pigheaded moron who believes that he has the right to dictate to everyone else to a feminist who wants to take an equal role with the men. It’s worth noting that the book misses a point there; the only people who can have kids are the women, so the women have to be protected at all costs, particularly with a plague threatening from the east.
The book does have its flaws, however. One that seems to be a major issue is that it doesn’t touch much upon what makes people act in a bad way in a bad situation. Why does Jon act the way he does? Why does Connie cheat on her husband and later murder him? Normally, when someone commits adultery, it happens because they weren't getting something from the marriage. Why does Connie cheat? Mark’s wife slams Connie hard, which is odd; a woman would tend to side with another woman, unless there was a prior awareness of the woman’s character. We don’t know, however, what that awareness actually is.
Perversely, the book’s focus on one character (rather than several) is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because the reader only knows what Mark knows; it’s a weakness because we are limited and don’t always know the other side of the story. On balance, it’s a strong point; Mark has to make his decisions with what he knows at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight or alternate points of view.
A weirder point that does pop up is the odd response of the government. The USN is sending two carrier groups to China to help cope with a threatened invasion of Taiwan. That’s nice of them, but I suspect that they would be needed more desperately back home. The carriers have nuclear plants which could be used to produce electricity, while Marines have plenty of experience in carrying out disaster recovery work. If the Chinese are to blame for the EMP – or if the US had good reason to suspect they were to blame, or decided to knock the Chinese down as well – I’d expect the US to start launching nukes at them. In fact, the US might just take off the gloves and just hit out at random. Iran, North Korea, China…perhaps even Russia. The USN’s SSBN units won’t be affected by the pulse.
Overall, Lights Out is an extremely interesting read and far superior to One Second After or Patriots. It is a realistic, thought-provoking and quite chilling post-apocalyptic novel.